While Apple is having a much harder time keeping secrets than it used to, there are still some very top-secret projects going on within the company that we only get scattered details about — enough to know that Apple is working on something in a given area, but often left with only fragmented reports that come up every few months to help us sketch out exactly what form a project might take.
In fact, of all of the projects in Apple’s skunkworks, none has been more inscrutable to outside onlookers than Project Titan, Apple’s efforts to create something that vaguely resembles a self-driving car, or an electric car, or a self-driving car system, or something having to do with artificial intelligence and automobiles. It’s never been entirely clear exactly what Apple is up to with Project Titan — and there may even have been times that even Apple didn’t know for sure — but over the past few months there seems to be mounting evidence that the company is working on an actual vehicle after all.
There’s very little solid information that leaks about the project; it remains veiled in the most extreme form of Apple’s secrecy, and since it’s still in the research-and-development phase, we don’t see the kind of supply chain leaks that plague most of Apple’s other projects, and Apple is very good at keeping secrets within its own walls.
The Apple Car Dream Team
That said, it’s virtually impossible for any company to create a project team that’s such a departure from its normal line of business and keep it a complete secret. Put simply, when a company that makes iPhones and computers starts hiring automotive engineers and designers, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it’s up to something else.
It was the poaching of several engineers from Tesla back in 2015 that first tipped the outside world off that Apple was setting its sights on the automotive industry. However, they were officially only hired into Apple’s “special products group” and most of their expertise was in self-driving car systems, which led to speculation that Apple was primarily interested in building an autonomous driving system, rather than a complete electric car, but also left the possibility open at the time that Apple simply wanted them for their expertise in artificial intelligence.
While the Apple Car project has taken a winding road over the years — there were reports that Apple once considered the development of a full vehicle to be overly ambitious — it’s more recently become clear that it’s back to developing an actual vehicle, with a spate of recent hires of high-profile engineers with skills very specifically focused on physical automotive engineering rather than software and electronics systems.
The reports began when Apple managed to reacquire Doug Field last year, a former Apple engineering executive who had gone off to work for Tesla, and then subsequently poached a senior designer from Tesla as well. However, Apple’s intentions really came into focus when it hired Dr. Michael Schwekutsch, Tesla’s former VP of engineering who was the driving force behind the rival car maker’s electric powertrains.
The very specific focus of Schwekutsch’s expertise left no doubt about Apple’s ambitions for building an actual vehicle. An engineer of that calibre who has worked exclusively on electric powertrains for the last decade would be of no use to Apple for any other purpose.
Now, according to Bloomberg, Apple has made another very specific automotive hire — again from Tesla — in the form of Steve McManus, the former VP in charge of engineering for car interiors and exteriors. While there’s no reference to what McManus is working on at Apple — he’s listed simply as a “Senior Director” — like Schwekutsch there’s almost no other reason for somebody with McManus’ background to be at Apple except to be working on an actual vehicle.
McManus holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Design, and although on the surface this makes it conceivably possible that he could be assigned to other design-related projects within Apple, the reality is that his 25+ years of experience has been focused entirely on the automotive industry.
In fact, McManus has worked for a pretty heady collection of luxury carmakers; he came to Tesla in 2015 after almost five years as the Chief Engineer of Body Interior and Exterior Trim and Hardware at Aston Martin, and before that he was the Functional Manager for Seating and Restraints at Bentley, and an engineering group leader at Jaguar & Land Rover. This seems like the precise calibre of industrial designer that Apple would court to head up the design of an iconic vehicle under the Apple brand.
Although nobody outside of Apple’s secret labs knows anything for certain, we remain highly confident that the Apple Car is coming. Of course, it’s still a long-term project for the company; after all, designing and releasing a car from the ground up is no small feat, especially for a company that’s new to the game, and plans to incorporate groundbreaking new technology on top of that. Reputable analysts have predicted a launch between 2023 and 2025, and the amount of regulatory approval required for such a project means that we’ll probably see Apple’s veil of secrecy beginning to lift in the next couple of years as it begins more widespread testing of its new vehicle, which we’re hoping will do for the automotive industry what the iPhone did for mobile phones.